In a new program from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Faculty, dogs will be trained on the smell of the coronavirus – so that they can recognize and signal whether a person carries the coronavirus. In particular, those who are infected but have no symptoms could be identified and isolated.
Eight dogs are currently being trained in the Penn Vet program, initially in a laboratory environment. Over the next few weeks, they will learn to recognize the smell of Covid-19 in saliva and urine samples from infected patients.
With up to 300 million olfactory cells, a dog’s nose is its best-trained sensory organ. For comparison: humans have about five million olfactory cells. Dogs can therefore sniff out facets that humans don’t even know about.
Our super noses can also sniff out these diseases
That dogs can recognize diseases is not new. For several years now, researchers from around the world have been investigating how animals can help us diagnose diseases. In a Spanish study, dogs were able to correctly sniff lung cancer to 97 percent. The animals also recognized ovarian and prostate cancer.
For a large study by the Hawaii Pacific Health Research Institute, researchers trained Labradors and Golden Retrievers. The dogs learned to sniff out the bacteria from pneumonia in the breath of patients. They also managed to correctly identify bacterial urinary tract infections.
Diabetic warning dogs have been trained in Germany since 2007. The dogs can smell when the blood sugar level rises or falls – even before measuring devices indicate it. In the worst case, they save their owners from a coma or death. There are even assistance dogs for epilepsy patients who warn their owners of an epileptic seizure.
In summer, the sniffers are supposed to start their job
In the new Pennsylvania University project, the dogs are now being trained specifically for the smell of the coronavirus. The training is scheduled to go until July. After that, the dogs should start to hopefully recognize people who have become infected.
“The potential of these dogs and their ability to recognize Covid-19 could be significant,” said Professor Cynthia Otto, veterinarian and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center. “This study will support the Covid-19 surveillance system and hopefully reduce spread in the community.”